Teens & Young Adults

10 Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Executive Skills

When your teen needs help on tasks, but pushes you away, here’s how you can work with her to turn her executive weaknesses into newfound strengths.

Illustration of a lightbulb and a computer in the middle of swirls of color, representing teen executive skills
Lightbulb and computer and butterfly in swirls of color, blue/purple/orange

As a parent of a teen with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), ask yourself: When it comes to executive skills, is one of your strengths one of your teen’s weaknesses? You may find it hard to believe that your teen doesn’t have this skill because you easily solve problems that require it. Or if you have a “tough love” parenting style, your child’s missteps may seem like a motivational issue that will be resolved by letting the teen suffer the consequences.

Sometimes parents assume that children will acquire executive skills through their daily living experience at home and in school, or they are reassured by teachers that learning these skills is a natural part of adolescent development.

Perhaps your parenting style is to micromanage, and, until now, you’ve been an effective “surrogate frontal lobe” for your child. These days, however, you’re getting some pushback from him, and you are wondering if there’s a way to step back without seeing him flounder.

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We have set out 10 principles to guide you in helping your teen. You can use them to develop strategies that take into account your teen’s unique circumstances and characteristics.

1. Don’t assume that a struggling teen has executive skills and is not using them.

Once children reach adolescence, we adults tend to see their use of executive skills as a matter of motivation: “Emily knows very well how to keep her assignments organized. She just gets lazy about keeping binders up to date.” The problem with this attitude is twofold: That the teen has the requisite executive skills and isn’t motivated to use them are both questionable assumptions. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve seen them grow in so many different ways that makes us believe our teenagers have the skills they need to succeed.

But do they really? Sure, adolescents can be lazy (or is it exhausted and distracted?), but if they really do have the skills to succeed, and they have seen what happens when someone yields to every impulse and is completely disorganized, why wouldn’t they be motivated to use those skills?

Motivation plays a significant role in teens’ behavior, but it’s important to recognize that some behaviors reflect a skill weakness rather than a lack of motivation. To evaluate weaknesses in your teen, be aware of his capacity to engage in effortful mental tasks. If he is bright and a good consumer of information (interested in a broad range of topics, likes to read and watch education programs), but is not a good producer of information (struggles with projects), executive skills are likely involved.

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2. You will need to help your teen learn executive skills.

Some teens have a natural capacity for observing and using executive skills effectively, while others stumble and struggle if left on their own. Many parents and teachers foster executive skills development through incidental learning — that is, they provide loose structures, models, and occasional prompts and cues, and that is all that’s needed. Or perhaps it was all that was needed in simpler times, when the demands on teens were fewer, and when the amount of supervision that parents and teachers could provide was greater.

To respond to this more complex world, we can’t leave executive skills development to chance. However, working with teens on these skills is not like working with younger children. They are unlikely to tolerate our telling them, on a day-in, day-out basis, how to organize their belongings or manage their time or emotional reactions. Even if they tolerated this, it would not be in our interest or theirs to make all of their decisions for them. It would undermine their growth and development. We have to be part of the decision-making process because our teens are not yet sufficiently skilled to make decisions with complete independence. The principles that follow will help you find a balance between assistance and independence.

3. Understand your teen’s drive for mastery and control, and focus on opportunities for her to pursue independence.

One of the fundamental and critical differences between working with your younger child on executive skills and working with your teen is the teen’s rapidly developing need for control and independence. The situation presents significant opportunities and challenges for parents.

The opportunity comes because your adolescent is seeking the same outcome for herself as you are — she wants to make decisions for herself and to be as independent as possible. But the parent and teen have different points of view about the ability of the teen to make good or safe decisions. The challenge for parents is twofold: You have to hand off the decision-making and problem-solving to the teen in a way that promotes the development of good decision-making ability, while recognizing that some decisions need to remain in your hands. From the teenager’s perspective, any shared decision-making, like decision-making by parents alone, may be frustrating.

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This leaves you with the task of searching for opportunities to encourage the drive for mastery and control in your teen without putting her at significant risk. One way to do this is to work with your teen on accomplishing objectives that are in the teen’s self-interest and that signify increased independence. You could work together to help your teen obtain a driver’s license or purchase a car.

4. The long-term goal is to reduce support and promote independence, but to “keep your teen in the game.”

You want experience to do the teaching, but you do not want your teen to commit catastrophic errors (failure in high school or early college, unsafe driving, drugs or alcohol, unsafe sex). To strike this balance, you have to have an accurate understanding of the type and magnitude of your teen’s executive skills weaknesses. Weaknesses in some executive skills represent less risk than in others. While a weakness in working memory can negatively affect school performance, there are tools available to help (cell phones and school websites) that are not intrusive, and that can promote increased independence over time.

But suppose your child’s weakness is in attention. Given the distractions that teens face, and their lack of experience, driving represents a major risk. While the easy solution might be to not let your teen drive until he’s older, it would threaten his independence and, in a way, keep him tied to home, a result that will likely lead to significant conflict. Attempts to restrict or heavily control your teen’s access to peers, based on your fears of the consequences, are also likely to lead to major conflicts.

If your teen is to achieve adequate self-management and independence, you will have to be prepared to take some risks, and at times the risks will be significant. In negotiating this minefield, you’ll have to continuously define what you consider acceptable risk.

5. Move from the external to the internal.

All executive skills training begins with something outside the child. Before your child learned not to run out into the road, you stood with him and held his hand when the two of you reached a street corner to make sure that didn’t happen. Because you repeated the rule, “Look both ways before crossing,” your child internalized the rule, then you observed your child following the rule, and eventually, he could cross the street by himself.

In all kinds of ways, while your child was growing up, you organized and structured his environment to compensate for the executive skills he had not yet developed, and you will continue to do that now that your child has reached adolescence. You realize that he will not accept the handholding or direction from you that he accepted when he was younger, so the external changes that you make with your teenager are different but no less necessary.

There are changes you can make in the environment, the task, or the way you interact with your child. For teens, environmental changes could mean providing an alarm clock or finding a car with a lot of safety features and the capacity for driver monitoring. Changing the task might involve starting with small steps. Instead of room cleaning, putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket could be a first step.

6. Work with your teen on strategies to assist her without annoying or alienating her.

Understand your teen’s style and strengths and focus on communication, negotiation, and choice. Your teen’s style will determine in part how you will approach him. The teen who is open to negotiation is very different from the teen who sees all attempts to discuss problems or issues as “none of your business.” If you parent from a position of authority, your teen is likely to react differently than if you parent from a position of negotiation and choice.

You and your teen will benefit from your efforts to engage in a discussion about expectations and rules. Your teen will also respond positively when you help her recognize and play to her strengths. A comment such as “You did a nice job talking with your brother when he got into your stuff” recognizes behaviors related to executive skills and presents the opportunity for you to build on them.

7. Consider your teen’s developmental level and capacity to exert effort.

When your teen’s skills are delayed, you need to step in and intervene at whatever level your child is functioning at now. That is, you need to match the task demands to your teen’s actual development level, even if that level is different from that of his peers or what you would like it to be.

You also have to modify tasks to match your teen’s capacity to exert effort. There are two kinds of effortful tasks: the ones you’re not very good at and the ones you are capable of doing but just don’t like doing.

If your teen is not good at a task, break it down into small steps. Start with the first step and proceed forward. Don’t move to another step until your teen has mastered the previous step. Take laundry, for example. Starting at the beginning might mean asking the teen to sort clothes into lights and darks. You praise him for doing a good job and move past the first step when sorting becomes second nature.

It is the second kind of task that parents have strong feelings about. These are the ones for which you might have accused your teen of “just deciding he doesn’t like to do them.” Your goal is to teach the teen to exert effort by helping him override the desire to quit or do something that is preferable. The way to do this is to make the first step so easy that it does not feel hard to the teen, and immediately follow that step with some type of reward.

Finally, don’t assume that because a solution looks simple to you that it’s a simple solution to your teen. Looking at your teen’s living space may trigger notions of how to organize the space. If organization is not your teen’s strong suit, the same scheme will not be apparent to him. So you need to approach the situation from the perspective of helping someone who has no idea where to begin.

8. Provide just enough support for your teen to be successful.

Parents and other adults who work with teens make two kinds of mistakes. They provide too much support, which means that the teen is successful but fails to develop the ability to perform the task. Or they provide too little support, and the teen fails.

In helping teens learn a skill by taking on new tasks, we assume in the beginning that the teen will need support. It’s best to determine how she can get into the task on her own before you intervene. You can do this by asking her how to proceed through the task. In some cases, she may agree to take on the task, but you notice that she hasn’t made progress in moving through it. If this occurs in activities for which she is motivated, such as exploring the process for getting a driver’s license, this may be a sign that she is not sure how to get started. In this case, a gentle offer of information or help may get a teen started.

If she’s open to your help, but you stepped back too early in the process, her confidence will be undermined. You want to provide enough support that she crosses the finish line with you watching from the back; you don’t want to be in front and reach the finish line first.

9. Keep support in place until your teen achieves mastery or success.

If you’ve worked with your child on an activity or skill, seen progress, and assumed that the issue was taken care of, only to find out that, after you withdrew your support, your child began to fail, you should assume you will need to stay in the picture longer. This can be tricky with teens, since they may not want you in the picture to begin with or want you out of the picture as quickly as possible. At the very least, you can provide support by being an active observer, and step in with help or support when you see that your teen is beginning to slide back. Expect your teen to reject offers of help. It’s important not to become so annoyed with this confounding behavior that you walk away.

10. When you stop the supports, fade them out gradually, never abruptly.

In teaching a child to ride a bike, you start by holding onto the back of the bike and keeping it upright. Every once in a while, you let go for a second or two to test whether the child can keep the bike going without too much wobbling. You gradually let go for longer and longer. Even when the child rides independently, you maintain support for a time by limiting where and when she rides. You keep watching her, available to come to her assistance if she crashes, and encouraging her to continue.

We want that same gradual fading of support and encouragement to continue, whether it involves turning the whites in the laundry pink because of errant sorting, or encouraging a teen to drive again after an accident due to lack of attention.

Excerpted from Smart but Scattered Teens, by RICHARD GUARE, Ph.D., PEG DAWSON, Ph.D., and COLIN GUARE. Copyright 2013. The Guilford Press.

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